On Brave and Paradigm-Enforcing Women

Warning: Very mild spoilers ahead. I promise I won’t discuss anything that you couldn’t discern from the trailer, or, at the very least, to not ruin the movie.

At long last, Pixar has put out a film featuring a female lead, and one with fantastic hair to boot. While other Pixar movies have involved female characters in important roles, this is the first to sport one as a protagonist. While it was panned by some critics for being not as good of a story as Pixar tends to produce, I would argue that it is a different kind of film rather than an inherently inferior one.

The conflict that Brave‘s protagonist, Merida, faces, is the not-uncommon one of being in rebellion against gender norms. Brave also features another common lady trope: Merida’s mother, Elinor, seems far more invested in enforcing said gender norms than Merida’s father, Fergus, does.

Whenever a conversation about gender norms comes up, someone will generally cite the fact that women enforce them. Sometimes, people will even argue that women enforce them more than men do. Whether or not this is true,* what is clear is that women are often seen and portrayed as engaging in much more gender-policing than men do. Elinor is not exempt; in fact, the main conflict in the film revolves around the inter-female conflict arising from such enforcement. As Queen, Elinor wields a certain kind of power, but makes it abundantly clear to Merida that the only way to attain similar power is through adherence to an incredibly stringent set of rules about what a princess can (and, more importantly, cannot) do and be.



While Elinor enforces the patriarchy, her husband seems rather disinterested in ensuring that his only daughter behave in a manner befitting his firstborn. Indeed, Fergus goes above and beyond in fostering and encouraging Merida’s interest less-than-ladylike pursuits — training her in archery, for one. As he and Merida both lack interest in following the code of conduct that Elinor enforces in her household (and it is truly her household), father and daughter both share many laughs at Elinor’s expense.

It seems counterintuitive that a mother would be more invested in limiting her daughter than a father would. After all,  if it’s the patriarchy, then why are the patriarchs themselves, so to speak, less interested in preserving the status quo?

The answer lies in Elinor’s retort to Merida’s rebellious cry that she wants her freedom: “But are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost?”

Elinor understands the price that a princess could end up paying for not being what other expect her to be more fully than Fergus ever could. Fergus might smile and dote upon his daughter’s desire to assume a more traditionally masculine role or engage in traditionally male pursuits, but Elinor worries for Merida’s future. The fact that she feels she needs to do so is a problem, but that she does so is not a sign that women like her somehow want for there to continue to be stringent gender roles. Rather, she doesn’t want her daughter to suffer the consequences of violating the norm.



Some women might gender police other women because they want to feel more-female-than-thou. Others might do so in order to preserve the limited but hard-won power that they wield within the patriarchal system. The first motivation clearly does not apply to Elinor, who both loves her daughter dearly and easily holds her own. The second, while tempting, doesn’t seem fair to Elinor, who is self-sacrificing in her wish to preserve her family and household. She, like many well-meaning older female figures in young women’s lives, fights her daughter’s rebellion due to her fear of the repercussions.

Vilifying women for not wishing for the girls and women in their lives to come to harm is about as helpful as chastising a parent in a small town for being worried about their child’s un-closeting: it doesn’t change the fact that the parent’s pragmatism is, unfortunately enough, the safer option.

Thankfully, social norms can and do change as a result of the actions of violators. Working towards that end is far more productive than calling out those who play the system because they have to. To re-purpose a phrase I’ve only heard used in a pretty misogynistic fashion, hate the game, not the player.

* If you know of any research on the topic, please let me know. My Google-fu has failed me on this one.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. The phenomenon I believe you are looking for is called Benevolent Sexism. It is part of an attempted re-conceptualization of the sexism label into Ambivalent Sexism and is composed of the former benevolent type and hostile sexism.

    Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske are the two researchers at the forefront. Their article, Ambivalent Sexism Revisited, can be found in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2011; 35 (3): 530 DOI: 10.1177/0361684311414832


  2. Thanks for this! I really enjoyed the movie and I couldn’t help but think of my mom, and understand a little better where she’s coming from when we argue about gender roles and what she expects/wants from me. And it mostly comes from a place of fear. While I’m still standing my ground, I can afford to be more understanding I guess :)
    Oh, and the featured image made me actually lol!

    1. I giggled for at least five minutes myself when I saw the image. I’m sure the other people at Starbucks are now convinced that I’m nuts.

  3. I loved it. One aspect I really enjoyed was the fact that it wasn’t just a female protagonist doing exactly what a male protagonist would have done but “girlier” – this was a film that I felt really spoke from the mouth of a young tomboy with (typical?) mother-daughter issues.

    I’ve thought a lot about the negative reviews I’ve heard and I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that this movie seems to be written for girls. Not in an patronizing way but in a way that it directly speaks to an experience that half the population hasn’t had.

    I don’t know, really, but that fits in with your idea that it’s not a bad story, just a different story.

    1. They’re going to have to *gasp* relate to someone else’s experiences! It’s funny how I’m so used to being able to relate to young male (human/anthromorphised animal) experiences (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille) but the case for female experiences leaves a lot of people cold.

    2. Rebecca, you hit the confusion I felt about reviews I had read before hand after watching the movie. Most of the reviews said something like, “Great opening and closing but the middle of the story was weird/not connected/confusing.”

      I sat through the entire movie waiting for something confusing to happen that didn’t make sense in terms of plotting… and it never happened. The best I could figure out is that people didn’t understand a movie written directly to women, about women’s relationships with each other that didn’t fit into stereotypes.

      And I feel that’s what Brave was, an honest movie looking at the relationships between women without resorting to one dimensional stereotypes (for either the relationship and the characters). And it’s so saddening that people have gotten so used to seeing the male perspective or stereotyped female relationships in media that they end up confused when they finally do see them.

    3. I had read the critics before seeing Brave. I was open-minded, but wasn’t expecting much. But during the fade in to the opening, I knew I was going to love this film. It was not what Pixar had done before. It was certainly not what Disney had done before. It was something new, genuine, and heartfelt.

      Once the lights were back on, I knew this wasn’t one of Pixar’s weakest. This was Pixar’s best. Ever.

      I’m not sure why the critics were dismissive of this film. I “know” why, but I don’t understand it. There wasn’t a hit of a princess movie in this film. It was a stirring tale of the tangled bonds between two women, with just the right amount of adventure to twist them to the breaking point. I had one or two objections with storytelling -form- in the third act, but these are minor quibbles compared to the whole work. They managed a mother/daughter story whose dimensions and characters I could relate to; and, as my chromosomes can attest, I am nowhere near their target audience. Both mother and daughter are portrayed sympathetically, in both virtues and flaws, while in a Disney princess film one would have been the unadulterated avatar of purity, and the other the raw and glorious manifestation of evil. The result is one of the most thoroughly human tales I’ve seen in a long, long time.

      I find it a pity that the critics can’t get past their gender-role hangups. In his review, Roger Ebert considers Merida an “honorary boy” and not a true female character. This is both ridiculous and insulting. I have had a number of female friends and acquaintances with more than a little bit of Merida in them. My best friend not only shares some of Merida’s character, but an uncanny physical resemblance. (Though if she is half as a good an archer as Merida, I have yet to hear of it.) I’m left to wonder how many mainstream critics have actually met any women in the past two decades.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the spoiler alert. I’ll try to remember to come back and read your article after I watch the movie… in a year or two. I really hate it when people use the excuse “Well *that* was in the trailer.” Yes. I never watch trailers because they spoil movies. If the Empire Strikes Back came out today “I’m your father” would be in the thrice-damned trailer. Humph!

  5. On top of the benevolent sexism, there is a kind of parenting that is not benevolent. There’s just a certain percentage of people who have personality disorders and when they have kids, those kids suffer. Parents, mothers or fathers, who are sociopaths or narcissists or borderlines, want to hurt and control their kids in ways subtle and not-so-subtle. And in that case the parent simply uses sexist norms as another weapon in the arsenal of abuse. And society props them up, which is the part that make me grind my teeth. Not all parents nurture. For some, children are easily accessible beings with less power who can be dominated. Personality disordered women who feel the need to control and abuse others often don’t have the same opportunities to abuse that men do because women have less power.

    Daughters are going to be the most powerless, the most vulnerable, handy victims that, if managed correctly, can be abused for a lifetime. It is ugly, but it happens.

    I don’t think it is more common or more cruel than what happens when the abusive parent is male. I think it just strikes a chord of tragedy, of ironic injustice that resonates. It hurts to even hear about it, not unlike the crab-bucket syndrome. We would all rather that the oppressed pulled together to better their lots instead of pulling down their own. I’ll bet that’s why the theme of controlling mothers and wicked stepmothers pops up again and again.

  6. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this film, and I’m glad that Pixar finally ‘got a clue’ re. female protagonists! Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.

  7. Seriously, read an EW.com blog post that actually asks in the headline: “Could the heroine of Pixar’s ‘Brave’ be gay?”

    Then he goes on to do some incredible speculating despite saying that there is no actual indication of her sexuality. Then he ends with “it ultimately doesn’t matter”. So, there’s a question headline which isn’t answered in the affirmative…a sure sign of reader baiting…and a hamfisted falling into the stereotype that girls and women who don’t want to get married might be, y’know, playing for the other team (queue classic Seinfeld: Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    So, question in the headline that doesn’t answer in the affirmative, the standard “she isn’t explicitly gay, but she isn’t explicitly NOT gay either” weasel words, and the ambiguous “doesn’t matter” close which is funny since what was the point if it didn’t matter.

    It’s like he played my copy editor pet peeve bingo and won.


    1. In a lot of ways the internet has ruined old-school journalism — headlines need to be catchy. Page views and such.

      1. I don’t see how that’s much different than old-school journalism. Headlines have always had to be catchy, to sell more newspapers.

        1. Catchy is one thing…outright misleading is another. And yeah, it happened too often (in old world print and TV) and it still happens too often, but not when it was my watch :)

  8. Sometimes, people will even argue that women enforce them more than men do. Whether or not this is true,* what is clear is that women are often seen and portrayed as engaging in much more gender-policing than men do.

    Well.. There was a magazine issue from.. Scientific American: Mind, which went into gender differences from research. While there is variation, and those variations seem to be wider among men, as a general rule, the male parent tends to “challenge” his children, whole women tend to “support” them. Now, support can sometimes mean, to someone that is worried about consequences, trying to help them to avoid those, by not doing something. But, again, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some level of, “No, don’t do that.”, from the father too, its just, unless he is like a fundie, or something, and has a very narrow view of “appropriate”, more under the surface.

    But, again, this doesn’t mean you don’t have some fathers that are more protective, or mothers than are more challenging. However, if this trend follows learning abilities, you might see a higher percentage of “hyper-protective”, or “hyper-challenging”, men too. Basically, in terms of ability, the “bell curve” is nearly the same for men and women, in terms of the peak and bottom, but “wider” for men, such that you get more high level, unstable (as in, eventually blowing a fuse and landing in an institution for the rest of their lives), geniuses, as well as extreme low level Forrest Gump types in the male population, compared to women.

    1. It makes me think about how my mom would warn me about talking to strange men as a teenager and wanting me to dress modestly as a way to protect me, even though it was in effect just confirming sexist expectations. And on the more extreme side of the spectrum, how it’s female family members subjecting their daughters to FGM in religious tribes where that is regularly practiced. They’re concerned about their daughters not finding mates or being ostracized from their communities if they don’t do it.

  9. When I was growing up, my dad taught me skills normally associated with boys (using tools, target shooting, etc.) and my mom taught me skills usually associated with girls (cooking, sewing, etc.). I wonder if there’s anything in that. Like maybe fathers are more likely to push gender-role boundaries because, being of an earlier generation, women are less likely to have been taught the more “masculine” things themselves? And perhaps had been discouraged away from them themselves as children?

  10. Thanks for this post and explanation. This is a phenomenon I’ve thought a lot about but I could never quite put it into clear words. But yes, the women who have tried to force gender roles onto me are doing it largely because they are painfully aware of the consequences of nonconformity and not because they’re the more sexist ones.

    As a teenager I said that I would be ok with never getting married, and a distant elderly female relative insisted that I would change my mind when I got older. At the time I thought she was just resentful of my opportunities (and they may have still played a part), but now I realize that she knows women get the short end of the stick in the working world and are more likely to need to financial support of a spouse. And when my mom criticized me for looking fat, it wasn’t because she just hates fat people. It’s because she had been teased mercilessly for being fat and then abused in multiple adult relationships in which a large part of the abuse was commenting about her weight and she thought she could protect me from all that if only I looked good enough.

  11. Still haven’t seen this movie, though I’d like to.
    Even more so is how much I’d like to take my 5+ year old cousin to see it.
    Would it be age appropiate for a 5 year old, BTW?

    The description given for how the father raises his daughter in the film is how I would like to raise a daughter, if I ever had one (Earth is more likely to be consumed by a black hole than that happening, however).

    1. I guess it would depend on the 5-year-old, but I definitely was startled and feeling the anxiety myself. There are some scary moments.

      1. In that case, it might not be for her, then.
        My cousin was scared from a soundtrack remix with images from the Cassini probe at Saturn.

        I would hope, then, that my other cousin (I think she’s 17) would watch it. I bet she could relate to the film, if soley for a dose of awesome.

          1. Likewise, I took my four-year-old, and he did get a bit scared by the willow-the-wisps, and decide he preferred to watch from our laps, but he was absolutely riveted for the whole thing. I haven’t seen him so goggle-eyed since the phase when we had to watch How to Train Your Dragon every day for three months.

            I, too, am bewildered by reports of the film being uneven or disconnected, it was really tightly plotted, and the relationships all made complete sense. The energy from all the mother/daughter rifts I could hear healing could power a city the size of Sao Paulo.

  12. I was a little disappointed with Brave, still not quite sure why. It may be that my expectations were too high.
    BUT…the depiction of the mother/daughter relationship was amazing, and the scene where the queen wonders aloud if her daughter can handle the ramifications of her rebellion was powerful. I saw the movie with a group of women, all various ages and different relationships with our mothers, and I think all of us connected with those characters.

    Benevolent sexism is a problem at my workplace and with my family. It’s wonderful to have a term to describe the issue, but I’m still stuck on how to address it. How do I tell people that only mean the best that their actions come from a place of privilege and are frustrating and offensive to me personally? It’s something else I’m going to have to think about.

  13. Heina,

    I’ve been wanting to see Brave for awhile now. I kind of like the sort of half cartoon, half realistic look of the characters.

  14. Heina is quickly becoming my favorite skepchick. She has a way with words. Time for some targeted backlog reading.

  15. I saw this yesterday (with my 18-year-old son.)

    (Possible spoilers)

    The center of the movie IMHO is the relationship between Merida (sp?) and her mother, and how they deal with the conflict in it. I thought it made the movie a _lot_ more interesting than the usual Disney fare.

    I tried to think of a Disney (or Disney-like) movie with a boy as the protagonist in which his relationship with a parent is at the center of the movie and I couldn’t think of any. They’re (almost?) all about the Hero doing Heroic Deeds or Defying Great Odds, and parents, if they appear at all, are more like appliances than people. (Sort of like an 8-year-old boy’s Power Ranger fantasies.) Yet, in real life, relationships (and especially with parents) are a huge part of growing up and even a good chunk of adulthood. Heroic deeds may grab the headlines, but they’re a side-show in even the greatest people’s lives.

    As an adult, even though I’m by nature and by occupation a techie, and even though I’m male (and thus not expected to know bat-s*** about relationships), most of the real work of my life is about relationships, whether with my kids and my ex, or at work, or in my various extra-curricular activities.

    This is BTW what I found so grating in the portrayal of Merida’s father. He comes across as having even less clue about managing people than the leader of your average 5-th grade clique.

    On another note:

    At some point, I got pointed to a blog article about Hunger Games, where some all-knowing reincarnation of Sigmund Freud was criticizing the book’s protagonist for “not having agency.”

    The same “criticism” could be made of this film. Or pretty much any half-way realistic film about growing up. Growing up is about learning about yourself and about the world and negotiating some compromise between the two, and is thus inherently reactive. It’s about doing stuff without understanding what you are doing or why you are doing it.

    (Actually, adulthood is a lot like that, too, but if you stay in the same rut for your entire adult life, you can pretend you do know.)

  16. “I tried to think of a Disney (or Disney-like) movie with a boy as the protagonist in which his relationship with a parent is at the center of the movie and I couldn’t think of any.”

    I don’t know, There were some powerful father/son moments in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon”. Also, Carl and Russ in Pixar’s “Up” also show a growing grandfather/grandson type of relationship (especially in light of Russell’s absent father). The relationships were the thematic glue in these movies.

  17. I loved how her personal journey in the story wasn’t just about her or what she wanted, but the conflict/relationship with her mother (and the surrounding fiefdoms). I loved, loved, loved this movie. And isn’t it refreshing to see a Disney/Pixar movie protagonist with BOTH parents?

    I was the only one left in the theatre when the end of credits final scene came up. At least *I* got my full money’s worth!

  18. When I saw the movie, I interpreted the ultimate price for violating tradition as causing war among the clans.

    On a side note, although it’ll be pointed out that my experience is anecdotal and from a position of privilege, I identify with Fergus because my wife is the gender police in our house as well. My daughter is 11 and my son is 2. I rarely enforce gender traditions for simplicity sake. If my daughter prefers to go to a STEM camp over a dance class and my son is using a little princess plate to eat dinner, so long as everyone is happy, fed and no one is fighting or bickering I’m a happy dad.

  19. Not to diminish the astounding awesomeness of Brave, but the folks cracking on Disney’s portrayal of parent-daughter relationships should at least try to recall Mulan, which covered a good deal of the same ground–including mom wanting her to be a ‘good wife’ for a complex array of reasons that include BOTH internalized views of propriety AND a fear of her daughter suffering if she fails to live up to that standard.

    Hm… Both films also featured a father who was in some way disabled by a battle injury (although, granted, Melida’s father barely seems slowed down by his peg-leg). There may be more to be mined from a comparison….

    Of course, Brave wins at the end by not having her get married off, but there’s definitely groundwork being laid in the earlier film.

    (I’d also say that Tangled at least touches on this, though the fact that Rapunzel’s ‘mother’ is actually her kidnapper clouds the issue. Still, you can see a lot of ‘classic’ daughter-training lines in the song “Mother Knows Best”.)

  20. I’ll take your phrase and raise you a better one, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Well intended or not, pragmatism can still be, and often is, an obstacle to progress. A major one at that. No amount of excuses will change that.

    I won’t argue that a woman’s risk at challenging gender norms are greater than a man’s, but fear of repercussions is what created the system to begin with. Being influenced by that same fear won’t change the system, it just reinforces it. I will argue that a woman who helps police the gender norms does greater harm to the humanist cause than a man policing gender norms, because she tells everyone, intentionally or not, that women really want things this way. Why should we make excuses for her? Fear is a reason, not an excuse and I’m not going to pull any punches just because she’s being practical in her own eyes. Should we give these women a free pass now because they’re A) women and B) just being pragmatic? Now we’re the ones discriminating. Is our new motto “fight discrimination with discrimination”? If not, then treat all opponents of your cause equally regardless of intention, reasoning, or sex. Reason is irrelevant in this case. Promoting a bad cause is promoting a bad cause.

    Sure, in the context of the movie, mom was overly vilified because she was a woman enforcing gender roles that discriminate against women, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was wrong and dad was right(or at least more so). Going soft on her because she’s a woman only promotes sexism more.

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